The new heroes and heroines of Scream 4 are savvy technologically, connected by mobiles, Facebook and live web streaming. They are thoroughly clued in. too, on the conventions and convolutions of the fiction they find themselves in.
The older characters, including the original three (Dewey, Gale and Sidney) find it hard to keep up with modern ways. Sheriff Dewey doesn't realise how quickly rumours of the new murder case have spread on the internet and Gale's attempts to film the Stabathon with hidden cameras end in failure.
We see the generation gap in the way the killer deals with them. The girls are teased and manoeuvred into position via the social media sites they frequent and their mobile phones. For Jill's mother, on the other hand death is delivered the old-fashioned way : by post. She's knifed through the letterbox.
However, the new generations know-how proves of little practical use. They are the ones who die. Furthermore, on two occasions, gadgets enable victims or potential victims merely to see the killer on their screen before they see them with their own eyes (screens and interfaces are as another pair of eyes, often detaching them from immediate sensations i.e. intimacy).
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Among these students are those who have not (especially the persons behind the Ghostface mask) been able to make the leap into maturity without disaffection, bitterness or confusion. While there are distant echoes of high-school massacres, what are most frank and explicit are frustrations that come from being invisible to others (in affection, attention and the anonymous mime of fragmented 21st Century communication), not knowing how or where to get respect ("I don't need friends, I need fans") or being uneducated in, or unaccustomed to, coping with rejection.
Their parents are almost completely absent, even at night; these young people uncomfortably straddle the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Some get by, some struggle, all suffer.
The bonny, middle class, hyper-domestic living rooms and bedrooms (virginal in a manner of speaking) lack any of the messiness associated with teenagers and the sight of them disordered, smashed and covered in gore is harrowing. Surfaces, neat and beautiful; depths, foul and befouled.
When Jill beats herself up to look like a victim ("everyone loves a victim") it really is painful. With every blow the internal wounds become written on their face. It isn't the jumps or the shocks or the stabbings that hit home but that pain. When Kirby is stabbed by Charlie he is almost weeping when he spits that she hadn't noticed him in four years. He walks away hunched over and decidedly non-triumphant. Later, it is apparent that Charlie is seeking Jill's approval, in vain, as Clyde to her Bonnie. The mask is the face of a ghost - the person who puts it on is already, to all intents and purposes, dead.
Under the Bed : Jill in the position of victim and stalker. Hiding and lurking.
Sidney, whose changing face is the very portrait of Scream, is haunted and hollowed upon seeing her nightmare returning to life, is another damaged (yet in some ways hardened and more determined) soul.
Jill's monologue, once she has revealed herself as one of the killers, seems both an unconvincing (as if fed into her earpiece by Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson) appraisal of a modern world gone wrong and an arresting and ascerbic diatribe/confession.
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Ghostface is just a mask : the mask of the angry, the jealous, the lost. It is an adopted identity. Any one of us could put it on. One of the traits that distinguishes the Scream films from the pack is that we already know the killer. We don't know who exactly but we have already met them. It can be anyone - not a person of supernatural strength or gothic fairytale degeneracy.
Masks - Enough for Everyone
Perhaps this is why the killer is filmed differently from other slasher film perpetrators. In the first scene proper of Scream 4 Jenny runs up the stairs towards the camera pursued by Ghostface. As she goes past the camera we turn to follow her. Then exactly the same happens with Ghostface.
Generally speaking, when gazing at a killer, the camera would be static. The killer may come past the camera, or through it or across it but the camera won't adjust to follow his movements. It doesn't happen in Halloween or Black Christmas or countless other Slasher films that the Scream series takes its inspiration from. It may pan, but it won't twirl or spin. It is about the otherness of the character, its relentlessness.
Scream is different. "There's something really scary about a guy with a knife who just...snaps"
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The original cast all survive the killers' attempts to remake the incidents depicted in the original in-film film Stab (based on what we see in Scream). They reclaim the series from its imitators and from itself : "Don't f**k with the original!" (even the Stab films have become clever sillies - Stab 7 doesn't even bother to mask the killer* and Stab 5, we are told, involves time travel).
The final word uttered by Sidney, in killing Jill, is "Clear". Defibrillator paddles are normally used to restart a failing organ and to revive the patient. This is what she does to the franchise, returning us to the beginning (or to zero) with a jolt that, ironically, kills the enemy.
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Scream 4 is a film wrapped up in itself. The characters talk about horror films all the time. Bit by bit, aware that the killers are adapting real-life events and tipping their hats to cinema's heritage, they start to feel like they are now part of a movie. They watch their tongues ("I'll be right back" says a police officer, and quickly regrets it) and they wonder if the murderers are playing by the book or breaking the rules (surprises are cliched, as someone says).
Because the Ghostfaces could be adhering to convention or departing from it there is no way of knowing how to be safe. There is no rhyme or reason, no discrimination made between who will die and who will not. There are more deaths in this film than in the other three Screams and they are matter-of-fact. They can come at any time. It is so easy to take a life with a simple movement of the arm.
The previous Screams were exasperating because the angle of a horror film about horror films and people who like horror films seemed tacked on and not deep in the sinew of the narrative. Here it is the film. Layers upon layers, not decoration. There is something charming about a work that feels like an essay on and love letter to horror films.* It is lovingly and precisely engineered. It's a film that was clearly worked on with much care.
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Scream 4 not only plays with itself, its past and its inspirations but connects with the real world...
Jill is fed up with playing second fiddle to her cousin Sidney, disenchanted with her life in the shadows. She is played by Emma Roberts, the niece to a (currently) more well-known actress: Julia Roberts. The film doesn't hide the parallel. Jill's surname is also Roberts. A frisson, a trembling, an added kick.
Dewey and Gale are now married in Scream 4, though they are going through a rocky patch. Scream was the film that brought together the now married actor and actress who play them: David Arquette and Courtney Cox. The film plays with the tension between them as characters and the tension between the film and real life. It has been suggested that Scream 4 has brought them closer after a period of separation (sounds lovely).
Then there is horror buff Kirby. She is played by Hayden Panettiere, best remembered as Claire Bennet in the TV series Heroes. Claire had a special healing power that meant she could survive being shot, run over or... stabbed. When she is suddenly punctured by the knife and told that it takes longer to die than in the movies, because of the images we associate with her, it pierces us still deeper.
So Scream 4 is wrapped up in itself, in the world of film and how the world interacts with fiction. It is, too, furnished and coloured by the backgrounds of its players.
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Scream 4 doesn't terrify you in the moment but afterwards, in the dark streets where your fate may be waiting for you camouflaged in black.
Scream 4 is not very scary, nor very funny. It can be frightening (Kirby desperately reeling off sequels in an attempt to appease Ghostface) and it can be amusing. If one were to watch and judge on strict genre lines (having said that, which one film would be the template, because all are different?), it could be deemed a failure. "It's not a comedy, it's a horror film!" says Ghostface but it needn't be experienced as answerable to either. Seeing films as fitting genres is like seeing the world only out of train windows. There is so much land between the tracks.
It is what it is : engrossing and likeable.
The characters are believable and interesting (Kirby, Trudie and Sidney especially). Sub-plots, gradually and delicately advanced, are made vital.
The inhabitants of Woodsboro are the kind of people you can care about for as long as the film lasts, and longer.